Essays (book reviews)
Maltin vs. Martin
The other week I watched Nicholas Ray’s magnificent Western of 1954, Johnny Guitar, on video. As the VCR warmed up, I grabbed my almost spine-less (through use) copy of Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies (now TV Movies and Video Guide). I read something about “a memorable confrontation between saloon keeper Crawford and righteous hellion McCambridge”. I wasn’t actually looking for consumer guidance – I wanted to match wits, to size up sensibilities with Maltin. Because I’ve taught, written about, breathed and dreamed Johnny Guitar, and I would have called it something more than “the screen’s great kinky western”! Be that as it may, I put in the tape. There’s a host – Chelsea Brown. At the start she says, “Here’s Johnny Guitar!”, and at the end she says, “What about that memorable confrontation between Crawford and McCambridge, hey?” From this I deduce two things:
a. Many, many people go into the same reflex motion as I did of grabbing TV Movies to find out about a film before they watch it.
b. In extreme cases – perhaps like Chelsea Brown and/or her cue card writer – reading Leonard Maltin actually substitutes for the act of watching it.
Let me be frank about this: if just once in human history someone decided to not watch a film on the basis of a wicked ten-word pan by Leonard, I would be plunged into the deepest despair. Movie guides should have nothing to do with ‘see it/don’t see it’ or ‘tick/cross’ directives. Because why on earth should you believe the author? Why is he/she necessarily right? What makes the ‘expert’ also an arbiter of taste? Film reviewers hit their lowest depths when they become obsessed with the worth of their own evaluative options.
I would (seriously) prefer a movie guide which made every film in the world sound somehow interesting – for whatever perverse, cagey or genuine reason. But if I must spend the rest of my film-watching days with the guides as they are, I demand one thing: that the authors declare their opinions to be not some authoritative truth fallen from the heavens (the film critic as God), but the manifestation of a very particular sensibility.
What I mean is this: every film critic stands for, speaks for a particular set of social values – whether he/she knows it or not. To damn one film and raise another is always an act of social and cultural violence – a baptising of what is deemed good, proper, necessary, ennobling. When some jerk tries to tell me that Room With a View (James Ivory, 1985) is the best film of the moment while Soul Man (Steve Miner, 1986) is the worst – and tries to couch this ‘objectively’ in terms of ‘film art’ – I sure know who is speaking (down) to me, and why. I know it’s got a lot more to do with the power of a vested cultural identification than with the actual qualities of this or that film.
A critical sensibility which is admitted, put on the table, is much more interesting and valuable than one which is hidden or unacknowledged. This is what reading film reviews should ideally be (and often is) – a clash of sensibilities, a bloody and strategic conflict of interests. And that’s not a matter of the reader deciding, in turn (like God again) whether the critic ‘got it right’ or wrong; it’s a case of fighting to reclaim the film in the service of a particular cause, passion or polemic – fighting for it as it leaps, stubborn and magical, from one claimant to another.
The problem with Leonard Maltin is that he never spells out his sensibility. (He – shudder – may not even be aware of his sensibility.) You’ve got to piece it together as a reader – so, don’t trust the guy straight off. In fact, I should save you the trouble of figuring out the lowdown on Leonard. My diagnosis is that Maltin, finally, is a good taste man. He would much rather get down with the neo-realist arthouse classic Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) (“honest, beautiful”) or the ‘70s white-liberal message Sounder (Martin Ritt, 1972) (“dignity and human values”) than with a delirious teen sci-fi movie like My Science Project (Jonathan R. Betuel, 1985) (“often tasteless”). Ultimately, his preference (rather like Roger Ebert’s, when it comes down to basics) is for the serious, the literary, the artistic, the high-flown – while reserving the right to occasionally ‘slum it’ with a campy “kinky Western” or an “irresistibly kitsch” melodrama like Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956). How I detest the kitsch sensibility!
As you take in more of TV Movies, you become able to break it down into the lists and preferences which define its sensibility. Humanism in its most sickly forms is definitely a good thing (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) is “impressive for its humanity” – big deal). So is unique artistic vision – Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) is “certainly one of the most intensely personal statements ever made on celluloid” (so, for that matter, is Confessions Of An Opium Eater [Albert Zugsmith, 1962]). While Man of Marble (Andrzej Wajda, 1977) “celebrates the role of filmmaker as a speaker of truth” (but whose truth?). Leonard loves a cute, warm, liberal movie which reassures him that blacks or women or old folks are oppressed but still beautiful people, like the yuckiest Paul Mazursky films – that’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) rather than his wonderful Tempest (1982), which Maltin can’t take at all.
Realism, particularly in the form of ‘real characters’ – “living, breathing people” – is a plus. Maybe even a must! This leads to “personal drama” as a category being elevated over mere or potential “soap opera”. Leonard is also big on “cogent” social satire – which means Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975) (“brilliant mosaic of American life”) rather than S.O.B. (Blake Edwards 1981) (“glib”) or Unholy Rollers (Vernon Zimmerman, 1972) (“some fun”). Interestingly, taste in its ‘good’ or sophisticated form, yields Leonard a literal praise-word: “delicious” (that’s Prizzi’s Honor, 1985).
As for what’s out in TV Movies, that’s much easier to fathom. “Tasteless” is Matlin’s favourite put-down word. It hums along with “violent”, “unpleasant”, “unbearable”, “disgusting”, “a freak show”, “degrading”, “cheap”, “lurid”, and “offensive” – and those words cover everything from Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) and The Thing (John Carpenter, 1980) (the remake) to Gunn (Blake Edwards, 1967) and The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1964). Far from finding them “delicious”, it seems Leonard can hardly keep these films down – their ‘ickyness’ often makes him talk of vomiting. The poor man!
You can follow through Maltin’s particular hate campaigns: against Brian De Palma – Body Double (1984) is “another sleazy fetish film from De Palma” and Scarface (1983) “wallows in excess and unpleasantness”; John Hughes – Weird Science (1985) is “tasteless and endless”; or the much-maligned Blake Edwards, who “thinks big, violent gags are funny” – hey, so do I! Given his taste for A-films which are authentic, true, sophisticated, streamlined, etc, Leonard encounters distinct problems with B-movies that offer frontal offense to the canons of plausibility and realism – “artificial” is another key pan word, unless it can be worked into a superior sense of camp. Larry Cohen’s highly intelligent The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), for instance, is a “sleazy bio” which “makes for great camp”.
Maltin can be a lazy critic – harder working than most hacks, but still lazy in unfortunate and distressing ways. There are classic words and terms that give away this intellectual laziness once it has beset any film reviewer: snap descriptions which are, frankly, pointless cop-outs. “Overlong” is Leonard’s favourite. What can it actually mean to criticise a film as overlong? Is there a way of mystically determining every project’s proper, adequate or decent running time? Of course, he would never call Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) overlong – disrespect for the classics, dear boy! – only popular or sub-popular films.
He also employs that neat sleight-of-hand for getting out of thinking through a difficult or challenging film – he dismisses it in terms of it “not working” or “not adding up”. But by whose standards and what criteria? When Maltin confronts a film he doesn’t understand, he takes one of two tacks. If it’s an acclaimed, serious, European art movie, he leaves it up to the viewer, in a somewhat cowardly way: The Coca Cola Kid (Dusan Makavejev, 1985), The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) and Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984) “may be a matter of personal taste”! But if it’s the work of some less identifiable left-field American maverick, he feigns incredulity and contempt: the great John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (1984) is “only marginally bearable” and his Gloria (1980) “may or may not be playing for laughs”. And when you come upon Maltin calling Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment (1949) a “first-rate suspensor” or Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946) merely “delightful”, you know that he must have stopped reading serious film criticism in about 1969.
I’ll now try to be fair on Leonard. For starters: his book is comprehensive, accurate and much better than the other contenders in the movie guide arena (Halliwell, Scheur, Elkan – all of whom will hit the trashbin of publishing/reading history long before Maltin does). I really wouldn’t be caught without it (as they say in the classics), if only for the indispensable info on titles, years and directors’ names. And, as regards sensibility, Maltin does have an abiding populist streak, which sometimes fights up through and away from his good taste. He loves cartoon culture (Tashlin, Lewis); he sometimes appreciates genre movies – Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976), Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) and The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) are 3 ½ star “knockouts”, which is at least a start. He’s slightly sensitive to the existence of genuinely (not contrivedly) cult films, like (Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley 1958]) Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [Russ Meyer 1970); and he can flirt (albeit uneasily) with the bizarre – Hellman’s incredible Cockfighter (1974) is “offbeat, violent but interesting”, even if that ‘but’ is a real give-away, where a simple and unequivocal ‘and’ would have done just fine. And he’ll never have the guts to knock a star or two off Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), et al – but he seems to knows in his heart which old Hollywood films are the real classics, like Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) or Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944).
And I have to admit that, when the dreaded sense of camp leaves him, Leonard has a few seriously passionate things to say about films which fall way outside the art-house canon. Anyone who can see his way clear to calling Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) “rich, moving, realistic and poetic” and Dawn of the Dead (George A Romero, 1978) a “masterpiece” which is “metaphorically rich”, this person cannot be all bad. This is why, finally, I can enjoy being infuriated by Maltin’s opinions – because I can almost imagine that one day he might publicly change his sensibility. And that’s certainly a lot more than I could ever hope for in most of the high-minded, film-art-literature review hacks working in Australia today, and probably until Kingdom Come.
Historic Note: The 2015 edition of Maltin’s Movie Guide was its last hurrah as an annual print publication. His website “Movie Crazy” – which does not recycle the capsule reviews in the Guide – is maintained at http://leonardmaltin.com/.
© Adrian Martin March 1987